His family held onto his Christmas present for years, waiting for him to return from WWII. The wait is finally over
oregonlive.com April 1, 2023
PORTLAND, Oregon (Tribune News Service) — The wooden box – about a foot long and maybe six inches deep – remained on a pantry shelf in a Portland Heights home in the Southwest hills for 36 years.
No one opened it.
No one moved it.
No one touched it.
The box held the family’s hope and optimism for a long-awaited reunion — until that hope and optimism finally were extinguished for good. Then, when it was time to accept the truth about that grim Wednesday in 1944, it held very different qualities. Tears and pain. That’s when the box was moved from the home’s living quarters and placed on the pantry shelf.
All of that, wrapped up in a simple wooden box, tucked away in an ordinary Portland home.
Tom Triplett, the boy who lived in the home, first noticed the box when he was 9 or so after his mother asked him to fetch something for her from the pantry. He saw that box weekly, if not daily, and it became a part of his childhood.
He left home, graduated from college and then law school. He married. The couple had two daughters. After a long career as a Portland attorney, he retired and now lives in Bend.
It’s been a long time, but Triplett, 82, can still close his eyes and see that box on the pantry shelf of his childhood home. Even at 9 he knew it was something special. He would soon learn from his father that it was a marker, a before-and-after in his family’s history.
“My uncle went missing when I was 4,” he said. “My only memory of him is when I was 3.”
During World War II, his uncle, Jim Triplett, married and living in Seattle, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the precursor to what eventually became the U.S. Air Force. He rose to the rank of master gunnery sergeant and was assigned as a radio operator to the 445th bomber group, which was a part of the Eighth Air Force. Stationed in England – and known as the Mighty Eighth – the group planned and carried out bombing missions against Nazi and Axis targets throughout occupied Europe.
On Sept. 27, 1944, 35 B-24 Liberators of the 445th bomber group, with 336 crew members, mistakenly veered off course during a mission targeting Kassel, Germany. Separated from the pack, they were, in every sense of the word, flying naked, with no fighter-plane support to protect their flanks.
The group dropped their payloads on a secondary target and were making their prescribed turns to head home when 150 German Luftwaffe fighters came through the cloud cover and attacked. Of the 35 American planes, 25 were downed inside Germany’s borders. Others crash-landed in France, England and Belgium. Only four bombers safely returned to their air base in England. Records showed that 117 airmen were killed in action, 121 taken prisoner and eight were missing in action.
The lumbering bombers, with no fighter cover, were easy targets, said Jim Bertram, whose father was a navigator on one of the bombers. Bertram, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, is the chairman of the Kassel Mission Historical Society, a nonprofit that endeavors to keep alive the collective memory of that day and the participants’ legacies.
“This air battle would become the greatest single-day loss to a single group in air-warfare history,” said Bertram.
Jim Triplett, 36, was on one of those bombers.
About a month before the attack over Kassel, Tom Triplett’s father, Bill Triplett, wanted to do something for his brother for Christmas.
Bill, a Stanford University graduate, who ran a chain of Portland-area grocery stores started by his father-in-law, came home with a wooden box. It was unpainted, simply constructed and functional. He filled it with small gifts to send to his brother’s air base in England.
“I never, ever, looked in the box,” said Tom Triplett. “But I know from my father there was tobacco in it. Chocolate – things to eat.”
One day, later in 1944, the doorbell rang at the Triplett home. His wife, Eileen Triplett, a fellow Stanford University graduate, opened the door and saw a man from the Army. In his hands was a wrapped package.
The man said it was being returned to sender, labeled addressee unknown. When Bill Triplett arrived home from work, his wife handed him the box.
Bill Triplett made calls, learned about the attack over Kassel and was told his brother was listed as missing in action. A year later, the family was notified that Triplett had been officially declared dead.
“Because of the location where the planes went down, my grandmother and my father believed my uncle might have been taken prisoner,” said Tom Triplett. “My father was convinced that one day his brother would come home. He put that box in the pantry because he wanted to hand it to his brother.”
And there the box remained.
“It was a constant reminder to the family,” said Tom Triplett. “To her dying day, my grandmother believed her son was coming home.”
Of the nine men on Jim Triplett’s bomber, only three parachuted to safety – and they were captured by Germans. Bill Triplett later learned what supposedly happened onboard when the fighters attacked.
“My father heard that my uncle told everyone on the plane to go first,” Tom Triplett said. “He didn’t have children. They did and he told them it was important they survived. My uncle was the last one to parachute from the plane. I don’t know where my father heard that. I can’t prove or disprove it, but it became part of our family legend.”
Now, late in his own life, Tom Triplett has a theory about the box in the pantry and his father.
Bill Triplett had planned to enlist with his brother, his son pointed out. The Army, however, rejected him because he had bad ankles from a ski accident on Mount Hood.
“I think there may have been a certain amount of feeling on my father’s part that he should have been there with his brother,” said Tom Triplett. “I’m surmising. He never told me this, but as I got older, I knew what he might have felt like.”
Tom Triplett was living out of the country when his parents sold their Portland Heights home and moved to a planned community in West Linn.
His mother died in 1994, his father four years later.
When their son helped clean out the place, he couldn’t find the wooden box. He never learned what became of it. For 36 years, the wooden box on a shelf in the pantry had been the one constant in a changing world.
Now it was gone.
The Kassel Mission Memorial Association was formed 40 years ago to honor the Kassel mission. A memorial was built on the site where the lead B-24 bomber went down near Friedlos, Germany.
It is the only known memorial dedicated to honoring airmen from both sides of the conflict who perished that day.
Members of the society, made up mostly of descendants of those who participated in the Kassel Mission, travel to the memorial every five years to meet each other and local Germans, and to pay their respects. The memorial was built in the spirit of reconciliation and the need for cooperation among nations.
Only one person from that mission, a pilot now 99, is still alive. For decades, eight servicemen from the Kassel Mission, including Jim Triplett, were not accounted for.
A German man affiliated with the association spent years attempting to identify each crash site, and another German man helped with archaeological digs to try to locate the eight missing men. That information was shared with the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which looks for remains of missing servicemen.
In 2016, working with German partners, the U.S. agency’s officials began an excavation at a potential Kassel mission site and found bone fragments.
Four years ago, Tom Triplett was asked by the Kassel Mission Historical Society if he would provide a DNA sample. He agreed.
“What happens then,” said Bertram, “is you wait and wait and wait.”
Two months ago, Triplett received a call that he describes as coming “out of the blue.”
His DNA matched the DNA on bones found in Germany.
Officials had located Jim Triplett.
“It was a great relief,” Tom Triplett said.
After hanging up the phone, Triplett began calling all his relatives.
A 79-year-old mystery was over.
Triplett later learned that DNA provided by someone else in the United States allowed identification of other bone fragments found at the site, allowing the remains of Lt. Porter Pile, the co-pilot of Jim Triplett’s bomber, to be identified too.
Tom Triplett and one of Pile’s descendants talked by phone and agreed on a joint ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The remains of both Jim Triplett and Porter Pile will be taken by an honor guard for an October inurnment.
Tom Triplett will stand at attention.
He will not be alone.
His father will be there with his brother.
His grandmother will be there with her son.
“The spirit of the entire family,” he said, “will be with me in Arlington.”
Triplett said he has experienced what he calls moments of quiet reflection.
He has not cried.
That, he knows, will happen at Arlington National Cemetery.
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